When was the last time you heard a political leader speak about values?
It’s impossible to evaluate policy without some sort of philosophical framework about what a just society looks like, how our constitutional rights should be applied in practice, what the limits of government activity should be, and so on.
You probably have some ideas yourself. Yet it’s become taboo in Canada to advance arguments on any of these grounds. Any leader doing so risks getting slapped with the pejorative label “ideologue.” Typically “unelectable” and “radical” follow.
The consequence? Our political class projects the image of living in a post-ideological world, where all questions of public concern have a clear-cut answer that can be found by turning to the cold, hard “evidence.”
Of course this nonsense.
To what extent should the government be involved in the economy? How much should our current living standards be sacrificed to guard against future environmental issues? Does the government have moral grounds to legislate on personal activities like drug consumption and assisted suicide?
The absence of questions like these from public debate removes the expectation that parties will generally follow a coherent value system, opening the door for special interest groups to force onto Canadians policies that contradict the core philosophies of all parties.
Take subsidies to auto manufacturing. No self-respecting proponent of free markets can justify the $15 billion directly pumped by government into the industry over the past decade, yet our nominally free-market Conservative government gives away hundreds of millions more each year.
On the left, progressives love to rail about the unfair power of large corporations, yet the Liberals and NDP fall over themselves to offer bigger and better corporate welfare cheques to big auto.
Perhaps even more galling is Canada’s supply management system, designed to enrich producers of dairy, poultry and eggs at the expense of literally all other Canadians.
A trifecta of price-fixing, production quotas and import tariffs, it should have been the first target in the cross hairs of any authentic free market government.
Instead, the Conservatives are potentially sacrificing one of the most important trade deals in decades for the sake of preserving supply management.
Imagine that: a nominally free-market party remaining so doggedly committed to a system of central planning that it’s willing to stall a major trade deal. And it’s well documented that supply management hits poor Canadians the hardest: five times more than richer Canadians.
It’s a textbook example of regressiveness.
About $340 in extra grocery costs every year is a big deal for those struggling to make ends meet – but again, here the nominally progressive parties jostle for the title of loudest supply management defender.
The door to special interests is opened when economic policy debate degenerates into a murky battle of numbers.
“Jobs plans” built with suspect math, “costed” platforms using shaky revenue projections, exaggerated claims about the effect of tax changes. Voters aren’t equipped to assess the validity of any of these figures.
So all it takes for a special interest group to sell Canadians on harming themselves are a few spurious job-creation and “spinoff” claims – and voila, it sounds (and is) about as convincing as any of the other numbers clogging the airwaves.
In an election where the three major parties are converging on the ideological centre, the most important fight this election isn’t the NDP vs. Liberals, Harper vs. Trudeau or the contest for Quebec.
It’s the battle between special interest groups and all other Canadians – and we’re losing.